When the night comes in Kambia, it is complete. This is apart from a few solitary candles on front porches, the generator up the road occasionally turned on to show Nigerian movies in a wooden shack, and weak flashlights that jump with the owners’ patient steps. Arun supplied the AMNet office with his personal generator so we are lucky to have some electricity when we need it. While headlamps and flashlights do just fine for just needing to see, the most pressing need for electricity is to charge electronics. In various spots around Kambia – and up at Kambia 2, also called Checkpoint – you’ll see shacks that boast “Charging Center here! Local/International Calls!” Because no one has electricity at their houses, they pay a small sum to have their phones charged. As far as calls are concerned, I’ve yet to find a ‘charge center’ that is able to make international calls; most of the time the person working doesn’t have enough units to make local calls. Still, alluring marketing every time.
When we do need electricity we haul out the generator from the storage room, set it in the back of the office on the dirt, hook up the cable from the inside, give it a few yanks, and there it is: electricity. The sound is loud, uncomfortable even with the back door shut. Makes it hard to concentrate. I inevitably realize what petty thoughts these are – for oh what a change it makes in our surroundings: curious heads start peeking in the windows of the office, or people just stand in the dirt road looking in, trying to get glimpse of our computer screens. Our friend Samphe, who lives with his mother a few hundred yards away (father killed by the rebels in the war), materializes out of thin air when the generator is on; Ashley and I look up from our computers and realize he’s been sitting and staring at our computer screens for many minutes. The computer screen is a genie lamp of possibilities for people here. There is no public computer in all of Kambia. A few NGOs have them, and there is a guy up at Checkpoint who uses his, it seems, exclusively for grainy music videos. Otherwise, there are none. The brothers across the street, Alhasan, Alusine, and Abas, understand the importance of computers in this “digital world,” as they put it, and crave knowledge. A few nights ago, they crowded around my computer as I launched Google Earth. We zoomed in on Sierra Leone, then Kambia; they made sounds of awe and wonder when we pinpointed the football field, the AMNet office, and finally, their home just across the path. Abas could only manage a muffled, sobered “Wow.,” like seeing a windswept Pacific Ocean for the first time.
Truly infinite knowledge with computers and easy access to it. Amazing.
I think of Alhasan studying by kerosene candle each night on his front porch. His antenna cord tied up to the gutter, a Sierra Leonean radio station pumping out Beyonce’ or Enrique Iglesias. He sits there late into the night with his head close to his tattered textbooks late studying chemistry, biology, physics, agriculture, RME (Religious Moral Education), economics, to name a few. He’s out of school, taken his exams for the year and now waiting for the results. Still studying, though, each and every night, knowing that good exam scores will be the only way he’ll be able to get to college one day so he can pursue his dream of being a doctor. Good scores, he gets. On every exam. But also, a desperate and painful need for money. Money his subsistence farming family does not have nor is able to make.